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Halong Bay in Vietnam – rubbish

The great thing about memory is that it is easy to trick. I went to Halong Bay last weekend and took some pretty (I think) pictures of its sunsets and the limestone islets and over time that is what I will remember. Unfortunately, the reality of it is rubbish.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site but it is one in a country whose GDP is expanding at 7% every year and where 70% of the population are under 65. Vietnam is, therefore, one of those countries where the future will be made and is almost certainly where your Nikes are manufactured. However, what this means for a day to day tourist is that there is crap everywhere and the air has that never-ending pall of construction.

Halong Bay and Hanoi

So as you drift around Halong Bay’s stunning landscape you can’t fail to notice that you are floating over plastic bags and the remains of the lunch from the boat ahead of you. Coupled with the sheen of diesel from the oversized vats (or tourist boats) charging around it means that you are dragged away from a landscape that looks timeless right back into the polluted present day. And then, you see a jellyfish limping along and wonder where its tentacles are and are told that they have been cut off and sold to China (for USD1).

Halong Bay and Hanoi

Now that all sounds a bit raw and despite all the pollution and crass tourism Halong Bay remains an astounding experience. Still it could be so much more and ironically it is people like me and you who are at fault. The very reason the beaches around England are so nice and clean and my city of London is free of smog is because we have exported all of the damaging nasty stuff out here to countries who desperately need it to pay for their demographic curve.

Finally, make sure your tour lets you paddle around the islets on kayaks as that is the absolute highlight. If we had had time I would have done the whole tour slowly on kayak.

  • Price – 150USD a person and transport back and from Hanoi


  1. Dean Aslin

    We spent Easter 2010 in Halong Bay and despite bad weather had a wonderful experience.
    Unfortunately the memory of the rubbish hasn’t faded yet.
    It is quite an unexpected shock and one that lingers.
    Completely agree about the kayaks. Highlight of the stay.

  2. Megan

    We went in September 2010. Went on a 2 night 3 day tour, which was fantastic. We were away from the other tour boats most of the time and also got to see some amazing coves and beaches that the “normal” 1 night tour does not take you. Agreed there is rubbish, I do recall kyaking up to a beach and we actually spent a 10-15 minutes collecting plastic bottles and bags. It is still amazing place to visit. Unfortunately Vietnam is going to have to get a handle on “controlled” tourism and not let it become another Thailand!!

    • I think Vietnam may have the ability to do so (as it is “nominally” Communist) – and I really hope they do as it could be such a beautiful place to visit and in the long run, be more valuable to them than mass, destructive tourism now.

  3. My daughter recently returned from a school trip to N Vietnam. The highlight was building a house inland at Mai Chau. But even there a permanent pall hung over the landscape. Plus plenty of rubbish – her verdict too on Halong.

  4. Hi Tom, I was first in Vietnam in 2000. Not here but just in the South. I discovered that people here were and still pretty much very ignorant about the environment. Every one just throws rubbish over their shoulders, spitting bones out onto the ground in restaurants and not minding crap everywhere at all. Its one of the things I most despise about my own people. But. There is still no campaign to make this wrong right. People on a day to day basis do not really read much press but watch TV. They love the tourists. They wish they can live like ‘us’ in the West, the modernisation of things makes everyone’s lives here much better but no one is telling the people about the consequences. We have hindsight but they have not even foresight, they just want to be better but ironically not giving a crap about crap.

    I am in Hoi An, one of the oldest and most beautiful places in the world. There is no crap here because the tourism board makes sure of this. But all businesses are catered for tourists and therefore, if you wish to know, the food is rubbish!

    • I probably first went to Vietnam in 2002 or something and just don’t remember being quite so horrified about the rubbish. Maybe I was too drunk (as I was a student back then) but this time it really really jarred.

      Hoi An I remember being clean but I don’t remember it being as wonderful as everyone raves about – I mean it is just one big concrete jetty with some nice run down buildings!

      Well I am hoping to hear where you did manage to hunt down some good food – if at all!

  5. We were in Vietnam last July, and spent 2 days / 1 night at Halong Bay, and loved it. Perhaps we were lucky, but we didn’t see much rubbish. We were taken to a small floating village, which was scrupulously clean – any rubbish was quickly fished out of the water – possibly because of the awareness of tourist sensitivities.
    Compared to parts of China, the level of pollution and environmental destruction in Vietnam is small… so far…

    • It slightly scares me on how bad the pollution might be in China as I expand my visits. I’ve only been to places I would expect to be polluted so far – Shanghai, SZ, GZ – but it can’t all be like that… can it…

      Maybe the steppes is where I should go!

  6. skreader

    I visited Ha Long Bay back in ’95. It was pretty, but I did not find it that much more beautiful than kayaking or boating around Sai Kung and enjoying the rock formations there.

  7. It’s a difficult thing, what makes places like Halong easily accessible is what also makes them prone to overcrowding and litter. And it’s not just a developing world problem. You only have to walk the Cornish beaches to see that – things have improved, but they are not litter free by any means.

    What always amazes me is that some places are still stunning and beautiful (just don’t look down/over the edge of the boat). Memories of Halong bay still remain sharp, even if – as with some many places – there are some sadder ones alongside the wonder.

    • The ultimately fearful thing is the stuff we can’t see as well. Even if we pick up all the bottles – what lies underneath or in the water. Especially now we are all thinking about radioactivity after Japan. The ocean cannot keep being our dumping ground!

  8. I was just talking about these sinking boats this morning before I read your post – my cousin was saying how the Vietnamese are always so greedy – even if they can only fit 10 Hondas on, they’ll attempt 20. The buses too, it seats 8 but there is always 20 people on there – we have to buy a ticket for 3 people if we want one person’s seat. Maybe thats where I get my nerve to fit all those people into my supper club – hehe!

    • haha! Maybe true. I am still not sure what the plastic mallet would have done against tonnes of sea water and wooden doors

  9. Even after going to Vietnam, and selling tours there on a daily basis I still have no desire to goto Halong Bay.
    Vietnam is heading the same way as Thailand, which is a shame as the people and the country are fantastic.
    Did you go up to Sapa whilst you were there ?

    • Didn’t make it to Sapa as was a fly in fly out visit. I am about to visit Thailand for the first time and see BK. Am seriously excited but hope whichever beach we then end up on is very very very very different from Halong Bay

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